Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

It is common for all children and teens to have some anxiety as a normal part of growing up. But sometimes these worries and fears don’t go away with development. If they start to interfere with a child’s normal activities and routines an anxiety disorder such as Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) may be present.

The difference between normal feelings of worry and anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder is that children with GAD worry more often and more intensely than other children in the same circumstances. GAD is characterised by excessive and uncontrollable worry about a variety of situations.  

What might cause GAD in children?

The exact causes of childhood GAD are largely unknown. It could be caused by any combination of factors that relate to physical health, environmental factors, genetic vulnerability, and biochemical disturbances. 

  1. Biological Factors

    A child who has a family member with any of the anxiety disorders is more likely to be similarly affected. Children might inherit genes that make them more prone to anxiety or anxiety disorders.

    Genetics help direct the way brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) work. Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters might play a role in how the brain works, which can affect moods and emotions and increase the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders. If specific brain chemicals such as dopamine, nor epinephrine or serotonin are in a short supply it can cause anxiety.
  1. Environmental factors

    Stressful, chaotic, or unstable family relationships and home environment can also make children more prone to experiencing anxiety. Bullying or abuse may also be a contributing factor.
  1. Learned behaviours

    Growing up in a family where other members are fearful or anxious can also "teach" a child to be afraid or excessively worry.

What does GAD look like?

A child with GAD might worry excessively and incessantly about everything. However, they might particularly worry about their performance in school or other activities and/or their ability to meet the expectations of others.   

Children with GAD tend to seek reassurance and validation from others in order to ease their fears and worries. Excessive worrying in turn might make them irritable, restless and apprehensive. They might have difficulty in sleeping, concentrating, handling uncertainty or indecisiveness. Children with GAD might expect the worst, even when there is no apparent reason for concern.

The stress experienced can be manifested in the form of physical symptoms such as fatigue, stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, trembling, twitching, sweating and nausea.

How is GAD treated in children or teens?

Children and teens with GAD often need treatment. The treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, general health and severity of the condition.  

  • Mental-health counselling

Talking to a trained professional might help your child understand what's making them anxious and allow them to work through these stressful situations. Counselling helps a child learn how to better manage and cope with anxiety. 

  • Medication

If your child's anxiety problem does not get better with therapy, your doctor may talk to you about trying medication. They're usually only prescribed by doctors who specialise in children and young people's mental health. Antidepressant or anti-anxiety medicine may help some children feel calmer.

How can I help my child with GAD?

If your child has generalised anxiety disorder, you can help them in the following ways:

  • Don’t try to eliminate anxiety, but help a child manage it.
  • Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety.
  • Let your child know that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to do what he wants or needs to do.
  • Don’t reinforce the child’s fears.
  • Express positive but realistic expectations.
  • Don’t avoid things just because they make a child anxious.

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